DF: When people interview writers, it’s often asked if they have a personal writing routine, and so not to merely follow this tradition, but in the interest of you having produced so much poetry throughout your writing career, I’d like to know if you have a personal writing routine and how has the influenced your life?
JB: I write quite slowly. I can’t do much with half an hour on the train or on the bus, or even with two hours at the desk. I’ve always been conscious of the fact that if I was going to do this job properly, then I would need lots of time. So I made a decision when I was in my twenties that I would only ever work part time. This is one of the choices that can be hard, because you have to take on board the fact that you are not going to have much of an income. Many people find they can maintain a career as well as a writing life. I do admire them, but I know that it just would not suit me. I try to do somewhere between 15 and 20 hours a week writing. Sometimes I don’t do that, sometime I do more, it depends.
I think the act of writing is largely the act of paying attention. You’ve got to be aware of the implications of every word you put down on the page. Is this the right word? Can I get a better word? Can I find a word that sounds better but still means the same thing? I think there are generally two aspects of the writing process: there’s concentration and there’s play. When those two things come together it’s really wonderful. I’ve learned that it’s a good idea not to hold on too tightly to the outcome of a poem. When I go to my desk, I just say to myself that I’m going to enjoy this process and I approach the task with mild optimism. I don’t worry if I haven’t written terribly much or very well by the end of the day, I’m just glad I’ve been able to engage with my creative processes; that’s the most important thing. It’s nice if you’re satisfied with what you do, but it’s not the whole thing. It took me a long time to learn that. I used to be so focused on getting a poem completed to a high standard. Now, I just enjoy the process and if a good poem comes, that’s icing on the cake.
I usually try and set whole days aside for writing. I’ve never been able to write in the evenings. My best times are mornings and afternoons. I always put on a scented candle or a stick of incense before I write. Often I’ll spend an hour reading poetry, just to settle my mind and put me in the right mood.
DF: Since you’ve mentioned the act of reading as a part of your process, are there authors that you come back to regularly?
JB: I mostly return to the authors I discovered in my twenties, especially that generation of American poets who were born around the 1920’s: Elizabeth Bishop, James Wright, Philip Levine, Robert Lowell, Derek Walcott, Galway Kinnell. I often revisit Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Rilke, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Theodore Roethke quite regularly. I also love some of the contemporary Scottish poets: John Burnside, Robin Robertson, Kathleen Jamie, Carol Ann Duffy. I read poetry all the time, and I’m constantly discovering new authors. I never tire of the Chinese poets, nor of many European and Latin American poets, but I’m always on the lookout for someone new, someone who’s a complete revelation or inspiration. I think the most important thing is to keep reading as widely as possible. Reading a lot is the best way to learn because it enables you to develop benchmarks. Eventually you learn what really appeals to you and what doesn’t.
DF: What are your thoughts contemporary Australian poetry. Is it thriving or is it stuck? Over the years I have heard it described both ways. Sometimes I wonder if it is both ‘growing’ and ‘stuck’.
JB: I think Australian poetry is thriving very well. In co-editing Contemporary Australian Poetry, along with Martin Langford, Judy Johnson and David Musgrave, we read the poetry which has been written over the past twenty-five years and we found magnificent work. Australian poetry has never been as strong nor as varied and it continues to be so. There are many strong and engaging new voices emerging, many poets writing on all sorts of subjects and experiences with a great variety of approaches. This can only be a good thing. We are all enhanced by a stronger writing community.
DF: Is the personal always political for you? How do you navigate around that idea?
JB: That’s a very complex question and quite a fraught one. I know that there has been much discussion over the past few decades about the lyric and whether that can still hold any sort of interest, given its retreat into interior spaces, but I do find the lyric a good vehicle for expressing emotions and interrogating the inner life. In societies such as ours, capitalist and consumerist, we don’t always give time to the inner life. What poetry, or indeed any art form allows one to do is to start opening up that inner life again, so in this regard I would say that poetry has a very profound political component to it. I also think one of the important things about poetry is how it is very intimately connected to the body – when you write you’re sounding the words to yourself, either out loud or silently, but you are still hearing them, you’re using your fingers to type or to write, you’re sitting in a particular space, or maybe walking around, so you’re never disembodied from the action, nor from the fact that the body has sensory knowledge which goes hand-in-hand with perception. So perhaps in this way, too, I would consider the personal as political, though the ‘political’ is such a charged notion and there are obviously different degrees of overt and covert political responses. For me poetry reclaims the inner life and it reclaims language from its grubby mercantile uses. The American poet Jorie Graham has said: ‘Poetry cleans the language of its lies.’ I wish more politicians would read poetry.
DF: Public discourse now is more political than it has perhaps ever been. How do you navigate this in anticipating an audience? Do you anticipate an audience at all as you write?
JB: The American poet James Wright said that he writes for ‘an intelligent reader of goodwill’. I think that is also the type of person I write for, though essentially my first touchstone is myself. I never anticipate an audience during the writing process, but afterwards I might consider whether or not a poem might have a place in the public sphere. These days voices that were silenced in the past are now being more widely heard and this is of course a very good thing, but I don’t anticipate an audience in the way that a writer from a previously ostracised minority group might anticipate an audience. I’m not an overtly political poet, though I would like to write more poems about animal rights, and I have published a few in recent years. I know people whose subject matter is entirely overtly political. My work is perhaps quieter with an implied political undertow.
DF: What would you say poetry gives? Both to you as a reader and the readers of your poetry?
JB: I think poetry gives different things to different people, but it gives me a sense of being part of the human community, a sense of the struggle to find meaning and significance in lived experience. It also alerts me to the incredible beauty and power of language. It makes me aware of the multifariousness of the world, the richness of the everyday, and it offers insights into unique connections and interrelationships. Because poetry makes use of similes and metaphors it helps you to discover and uncover relationships not previously thought of, it gives us new tools and patterns for thinking. Poetry has driven my whole life. It’s what gets me up in the morning.
DF: You mentioned poetry being in a way about one’s inner life. What does it mean to you to have an inner life?
JB: Largely it’s a matter of sharpening self-awareness, of trying to keep myself open to the world rather than being closed against it, not letting the ego be the main instigator in how I operate in the world. It’s about being attentive to other people in a caring and compassionate manner and not being in constricted emotional states that curtail and throw off-kilter proper human interactions. Keats captured it so well in his notion of ‘negative capability’ a state of heart and mind in which you are simply open to the moment without trying to strive after answers, resolutions or conceptualisations which harden and solidify responses into immoveable judgements. Of course that’s a hard state to achieve.